Aleksandar Vucic entered Serbian politics in 1993, at the age of 22, and has never held any other job (though did once claim, implausibly, to have been illegally employed at a hardware store in London). Within five years he had been named a minister, holding the information portfolio in the government controlled by Slobodan Milosevic and nominally led by Mirko Marjanovic. Now at age 47, after three years as prime minister, he is assuming the office of president of Serbia. Again.
Again? What’s up with that? Well, president Vucic already had an inauguration, on May 31. This followed the elections on April 2, in which he received a decisive first round victory, leading his closest opponent by a 39 percent margin, with all other challengers trailing a guy in a white suit and a man bun who ran as a joke.
For somebody who has sought nothing but political power, this might have been expected to be a moment of enormous triumph and satisfaction. The party he created (together with his predecessor as president, Tomislav Nikolic) in 2008 has carried through a string of electoral victories. Every opposition party has collapsed, he has the winking support of both Europe and Russia, and he is prepared, like the former president Boris Tadic, to exercise power well out of proportion to the ceremonial role that the Serbian constitution provides to presidents.
While most of the attention afforded to the incoming prime minister has concentrated on her sexual orientation, this is where her uniqueness ends. Ana Brnabic is probably considerably gayer than Tadic’s prime minister Mirko Cvetkovic, but was chosen for similar reasons and with similar expectations: as a person without independent electoral support who can be counted on to obediently implement policies she did not develop.
Wave of protests
But Vucic’s period of unimpeded power has not begun well. The election itself was marred by multiple claims of intimidation and fraud. Immediately afterward a series of street protests began which, although they were chaotic and incoherent, sustained wide participation over several weeks in a number of localities.
The popularity of the protests, coming as they did after a lopsided electoral victory, compelled many people to ask whether a good number of the people who voted for Vucic were also protesting against him. It is entirely probable that this was the case, with people following instructions to vote one way to defend a job or benefit, and believing something entirely different.
The uncertain atmosphere contributed to a squalid inauguration ceremony on May 31. The ‘Seven Demands’ protest movement, among others, attempted to demonstrate against the concentration of power in the hands of the ‘new Erdogan,’ and similar symbolic marches were organized by opposition political parties. Private security agencies contested the protests with a wave of violence against citizens and journalists.
Professor of Law at Union University, Vesna Rakic Vodinelic, described the event as the ‘Savamala inauguration,’ alluding to a much-decried incident in which masked private security officers allegedly engaged by the Belgrade city government, under cover of night, bulldozed a building to gain control of the property, causing one fatality. In short, taking over the presidency in the first instance did not bring Aleksandar Vucic the recognition and legitimacy he sought.
And so the wheels were set in motion for him to be inaugurated again, on June 23. This effort was thin in content (and it did not involve Vucic actually taking an office, which he had already taken) but ultra concentrated in symbolism.
The ceremony was held at the former building of the Yugoslav Federal Executive Council (SIV) in New Belgrade, a modernist riverfront behemoth designed to project the prestige and importance of a state that no longer exists — more recent power holders have renamed the building ‘The Palace of Serbia.’ The emphasis in press coverage was on the attendance of the ceremony by regional leaders, who praised the stability and longevity of Vucic’s grasp on power.
Incongruously, Vucic, who rose to political prominence through a far-right satellite party of the Milosevic regime, claimed in his address that “we are the generation that understood that problems do not exist.”
Like a Disney theme park
The main quantity of symbolic energy was dedicated to identifying Vucic with Serbia and Serbia with the region.
The reception rooms of the former SIV, named during the Yugoslav period after the different republics of the Yugoslav federation, were turned into showcases for regions of Serbia. In each of them were costumed actors representing figures from Serbian history and culture, who recited short passages from literature or texts about the historical importance of their region. The actors were paralleled by the snacks that were served, a different regional specialty in each room.
In the spirit of the Disney Corporation’s EPCOT theme park, each performance of diversity was reduced to an inoffensive, picturesque minimum. Possibly the message was meant to echo Vucic’s contention in his address that “we are changing” — in this case making a transition from vulgarity to banality.
Publicity surrounding the event also marked a shift from overt political content to pure marketing. News stories concentrated on the number of guests, the festivity and imposing character of the ritual, and the ways in which the massive ceremony represented the importance and (reclaimed?) prestige of the country. One newspaper offered a recipe, inviting readers to prepare and enjoy a delicacy that would also be served to the invited guests.
The satirical website Njuz.net distilled the event to its essence, running a piece promising two more inaugurations for Vucic, who had received “one of the 10 most beautiful inaugurations in Europe.”
If Vucic’s response to the insecurity and weak legitimacy of his consolidation of power is to arrange a glitzy ceremony and occupy it with kitsch, there may be a lesson in this. One is that hard experience has taught him not to take positions: Be both pro-reconciliation and pro-escalation of tension. Be both pro-Russia and pro-Europe. Speak for democracy while controlling the judiciary and the press. Say as little as possible, to increase the probability that everybody would agree. And rely on the most general categories — security, stability, the State — that are available.
In the end this strategy may succeed, mostly because everybody else is too exhausted to respond.
The people holding power are probably more acutely aware of the weakness of this position than their supporters are. They know that a plebiscitary mandate is not a mandate to do anything, and that it can just as easily be taken away as given. And they know that the aura of inevitability is a bubble that can burst, and frequently does.
We have been witnessing the generation of a state type in the semi-periphery that revolves around its own image of stability while engaging with frighteningly little of the concrete stuff that makes states and societies stable. Uniforms and rituals will make them appear to be strong, until they do so no longer.
Meanwhile, after communism and nationalist authoritarianism, this is the new face of power in the region. Glassy-eyed, it stares self-importantly at nothing at all.
Feature image: Courtesy of the President of Serbia’s press office.